By Salynn Boyles
Aug. 13, 2001 -- Ann-Margret was known as America's sex kitten when she rocketed to fame in the early 1960s. In the '70s she made her mark as a serious actress, with Academy Award nominations for her roles in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy. Along the way she conquered Las Vegas, starred in critically acclaimed television dramas, and battled back from a near fatal on-stage accident.
Now the actress is taking on a new role as spokeswoman for a campaign to raise awareness about the bone-thinning disease known as osteoporosis. She is still stunning, still sexy, but she is also something else. Ann-Margret turned 60 three months ago, and she wants the world to know about it.
"Sixty is just a wonderful time of life, because you know yourself," she tells WebMD. "It was so different 30 years ago. When someone turned even 40 it was a major deal. They were considered to be on a downward spiral. And 50 ... my goodness!"
The actress says she had no hesitations when approached by the "What 60 Looks Like Now" campaign, even though it meant going public with her age. The education effort is sponsored by the National Council on the Aging, with financing from Merck pharmaceuticals, which manufacturers the osteoporosis drug FOSAMAX.
"Everyone knows everyone's age in Hollywood anyway," she says. "It is true that Hollywood is still obsessed with age, but who cares? Who really cares? This is just so important."
She says women who stay active and fit should not fear aging, and a survey commissioned by the campaign suggests many don't. Of 400 60- to 69-year-old women participating in the survey, 56% said they were more active and healthier than they had expected to be at that age, and 70% said their 60s were the best time of their lives.
However, while almost all the women questioned agreed that maintaining good health is important, only about half of them had undergone a bone density test designed to identify osteoporosis.
"The one thing that I want to get out there, especially to postmenopausal women, is that they should call their doctor, make an appointment, and find out if a bone density test is right for them," the actress says. "The test is so simple. You don't even take off your clothes. It takes about seven minutes, and it's painless. There is nothing to it."
Bone Thinning Is Preventable
Approximately 23 million American women and 5 million men have osteoporosis, and some 1.5 million fractures are associated with the bone-thinning disease each year. Fractures caused by osteoporosis are more common in women than heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer combined, and a woman's risk of having a hip fracture at some point in her life is equal to the combined risk of developing breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.
Although nearly 40% of women in their 60s have some degree of bone loss, the condition often goes unrecognized because there are no symptoms until the disease progresses to the point where fractures occur. A bone density test is the most effective method of determining whether someone has lost bone mass.
"I didn't know about the test until one of my friends told me about it," Ann-Margret says. "I had my first test last November and I had another one two weeks ago. I'm lucky. I found out that my bones are still healthy and that I don't have osteoporosis."
Rheumatologist William Sunshine, MD, medical spokesperson for the campaign, says the education effort hopes to raise awareness about bone density testing among women at risk and their doctors. He says too few physicians treating menopausal and postmenopausal women discuss osteoporosis with their patients. Sunshine is in private practice in Boca Raton, Fla.
"One problem is that we are dealing with an asymptomatic illness," he tells WebMD. "People visit their doctors with all kinds of complaints, but a patient isn't likely to come in and complain about osteoporosis. Unfortunately, when you look at a patient there is no clue to tell us if she has osteoporosis unless she already has a fracture. At that point, you are looking at the end result of the disease."
Bones are built during childhood and the teen years, and bone density is generally maintained during the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Once a woman reaches menopause, however, bone mass begins to decrease. The loss can be very rapid, Sunshine says.
"The key is to build as much bone as you can during your formative years and into your postmenopausal years to protect against bone loss later on," Sunshine says. "It is the equivalent of putting money into a retirement account. When you are young you should deposit as much as you can so that when you are retired and you need to withdraw from the account, there is plenty to work with."
Bone density testing is critical, Sunshine says, because drugs are now available that not only help prevent osteoporosis, but reverse bone loss.
A woman can lose up to 20% of her bone mass in the 5-7 years following menopause, but it does not have to happen. The best ways to prevent osteoporosis include:
- eating a balanced diet rich in calcium and vitamin D;
- taking calcium supplements;
- exercising regularly, emphasizing weight-bearing exercises;
- not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption;
- having a bone density test; and
- taking medication when needed.
To stay in shape and prevent bone loss, Ann-Margret exercises three times a week, combining weight work with aerobic exercise on a treadmill. She also walks with friends for two or three hours every Saturday morning. This summer she kicked off a tour as star of the musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and says the regular exercise helps give her the stamina she needs for the kind of hectic schedule that comes along with such a production.
"I am lucky that I have good genes," she says. "My father and mother always had great energy and a positive outlook on life. But I couldn't do what I do if I didn't exercise regularly. Women have to be aggressive about fitness. Keeping your bone health and muscles is so important as you age. The best advice I can give is to keep moving and call your doctor to discuss bone loss."
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